The national broadband network is the single most important nation building project undertaken since between 1949 and 1974 – but it is in dire trouble. The Coalition has decided that the nation can do with an alternate solution, that some say could risk Australia’s broadband future.
Defeat in September risks erasing the endeavours of the Labor government, but there is a way it can potentially preserve the NBN. Prime Minister Gillard should act to protect the NBN and by doing so protect this government’s most important legacy.
At the upcoming September election, the Gillard government should hold a separate national referendum on the future of the NBN.
Support for the NBN
Support for the Gillard Labor government has dropped precipitously. A recent Newspoll published in The Australian showed that after preferences the Coalition’s lead over Labor sits at 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
But this support nationally does not mean that Australians do not want Labor’s NBN.
A 2011 study carried out by the Swinburne University of Technology’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, called "The Internet in Australia”, shows that there is considerable interest in a viable broadband solution.
The study included a survey of 1,001 Australians – men and women between 18 and 65 – with two thirds located in urban areas and one third located in rural areas. It included the question, "Do you think the development of the National Broadband Network is a good idea?” According to the study, 35 per cent strongly agreed, 32 per cent agreed, 13 per cent were non-committal, 13 per cent disagreed and seven per cent strongly disagreed.
So about two thirds of respondents were in favour of the NBN and the sentiment is confirmed in other polls, such as the one carried out by Essential Research in February 2012 and an independent review of support for the NBN in rural and regional communities completed in May last year.
Why vote on the NBN?
Prior to the 2010 national election Labor put to the electorate a policy platform that included the NBN – a new national network that connects Australians to the internet using fibre to the premise, fixed wireless and satellite. Labor won the 2010 election, passed legislation supporting the NBN with the support of the Greens and independents, and commenced building the NBN.
The NBN initial roll-out may take 10 years or more, meaning there are likely to be three national elections prior to the initial roll-out. By the very nature of Australia’s system of government, legislation can be overturned or rewritten by subsequent governments that hold a majority in both houses. This means that Australia could be faced with the ludicrous situation where a Coalition win at the 2013 election would open the way for major changes to the NBN; a Labor win at the 2016 election could see the original NBN approach restored; and a Coalition win at the 2019 election would mean… You get the idea – chaos!
One sensible way forward is for a clear preference to be indicated by Australian voters through a referendum held in conjunction with the September national election.
Most Australians would be familiar with referendums that affect the constitution. The last Australian referendum, which was a vote on Australia becoming a republic, was held in 1999.
In Australia, referendums on matters that do not affect the Constitution are called plebiscites. Plebiscites have no legal force but provide Australian voters with an opportunity to vote on a single issue affecting the country. Australia has held three plebiscites: two on the conscription of troops during World War I and one on a national song in 1997. The winner of the national song plebiscite held on 21 May 1977 was "Advance Australia Fair”.
The current national political debate centres around the best approach to complete the NBN, this includes cost, roll-out completion date, technologies and connection upload and download speeds at the roll-out completion date. Each factor is interrelated and by changing any one factor the others will also be affected.
To hold a plebiscite the difficulty will be to come up with a question that provides a simple choice for voters to make. The question should clearly highlight the key relationship – can a cheaper approach provide a new national broadband network with high connection speeds?
The question therefore might be…
With the knowledge that in 2011 Australia commenced building a wholesale National Broadband Network that includes an optical fibre replacement for the ageing copper network and utilises wireless and satellite to provide enhanced network connection in regional and remote Australia electors may indicate their preferences as to which approach should be used to complete the National Broadband Network.
- Australian premises connected to the wholesale NBN before 2020 at a cost not exceeding $60 billion using a combination of fibre to the premise with connection speeds not less than 1 Gbps download and 300 Mbps upload (93 per cent), wireless with connection speeds not less than 100 Mbps download and 30 Mbps upload (4 per cent), and satellite with connection speeds not less than 100 Mbps download and 30 Mbps upload (3 per cent). Australian vehicles (planes, trains, motor vehicles, and boats) connected to the NBN with connection speeds not less than 100 Mbps download and 30 Mbps upload (100 per cent).
- Australian premises connected to the wholesale NBN before 2020 at a cost not exceeding $30 billion using a combination of fibre to the premise, fibre to the node, wireless, hybrid fibre coax, and satellite with connection speeds for all technologies used to be not less than 20 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
Let Australia decide
The NBN is a nation building project that when finished will be built for the equivalent of about 2-3 years national expenditure on roads. The ageing copper network will not last for ever and will not provide internet connection speeds now being enjoyed by millions around the world.
The NBN is the digital superhighway that will provide all Australians with an opportunity to share in the national digital economy, to gain access to new education, health, employment opportunities and to benefit from improved connections to friends and family where-ever they may be.
It is time to let Australia decide. Click here to enter your vote now.
Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.